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Four Levels of Literature to Form a Healthy Worldview

Ideas bloom like plants. Good plants begin with good soil

Photo by Chris Lawton / Unsplash

Intellectual impulses are sublogical.

We might believe we’re thinking logically and just grasping facts, but we rarely are. Our ideas more often reflect our moods or wishes than objective calculations based on the facts.[1]

In his Grammar of Ascent, John Henry Newman explored the unconscious process of the mind. He coined the term “illative sense” to describe the memory and creation, sense impressions and abstractions, little facts accumulated over the years, proofs we’ve deduced since childhood, an army of illustrations and inferences . . . all coming together somehow to give us an implicit worldview that is sublogical.

I can’t explain it any more than I can explain how my vermicompost makes my zinnias bloom like mad.

I am here, however, to suggest how your reading can help frame your illative sense in a good way, to give it a sense of norms that makes your sublogical soil healthy, so then maybe you can lead a healthier life and, if you’re lucky, contribute healthy ideas and art to those around you.

And if you’re a parent, I’m here to suggest the kind of reading you might want to give your children.

Four Levels of Literature

In Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk lists four types of literature that help form a good illative sense. I might quibble with this categories, but given Kirk’s credentials, including friendship with some of the greatest literary minds of the twentieth century, I suspect my quibbles come from a faulty illative sense so I’m wholly deferring to him:

1. Fantasy

2. Narrative History and Biography

3. Reflective Prose and Poetic Fiction

4. Philosophy and Theology


“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It's a way of understanding it.” Lloyd Alexander

This is where you can help your children the most. Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen. Consider getting an anthology like the Treasury of Classic Children’s Literature or William Bennet’s The Book of Virtue.

When they get older, The Chronicles of Narnia, then The Hobbit. As they near the teens, Lord of the Rings. If they’re twisted kids like I was, The Silmarillion.

Narrative History and Biography

“Reading of grand lives does something to form decent lives.” Russell Kirk

I’d put Boswell’s Life of Johnson here. I think I’ve read every G.K. Chesterton biography out there and endorse them all, plus I’d recommend GKC’s biographies of Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. I’d think pretty much any biography of George Washington (a man so great that even the Catholics claim him) fits here.

For narrative history, Kirk recommends Dickens’ Child’s House of England and Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair. I’d recommend GKC’s Everlasting Man. If you want narrative intellectual history, Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism is difficult but riveting . . . if you can get into it (no small feat).

Reflective Prose and Poetic Fiction

“You did not come back from Hell with empty hands.” Andre Malraux

Frustratingly, Kirk defines neither “reflective prose” nor “poetic fiction.”

If it’s “reflective,” then the prose would have an autobiographical element, so should it go under “biography”? Beats me, but if you’re looking for reflective essays, Joseph Epstein is the best. His essays combine reflections from his life and learning, almost like reading a highly-organized commonplace book on a single subject.

I’d also consider David Foster Wallace essays. He published only 17 of them and I’m not sure how much they’ll help shape one’s illative sense, but they are reflective. If nothing else, the reader will learn the importance of honesty, including self-deprecating humor.

For autobiography, I suppose I’m supposed to recommend Ben Franklin’s, but I’m not sure how normative I find a book of pre-fab moral automation[2]by a serial lecher.

Instead, try Whittaker Chambers’ Witness. Ascent from Communism to Quakerism, the Alger Hiss case. It’s not a period piece. Chambers was a first-rate writer and he set out to write a work of permanence. And succeeded. “You did not come back from Hell with empty hands,” the French novelist Andre Malraux wrote to Chambers after reading an advance copy.

And if you want to start at the very beginning of autobiography, St. Augustine’s Confessions. It’s not only the first autobiography, it might be the best. If you like it Catholic but more modern, try Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain.

And for poetic fiction? I’m not sure what Kirk means, but George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft has long resonated with me, as does George Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest. I haven’t gotten around to her yet, but a trendy pick here is Sigrid Undset. I gotta believe the Brontes, Henry James, and Jane Austen all fit here as well.

Philosophy and Theology

“The desire of man is to know something whole and perfect.” St. Thomas Aquinas

Pull a chair to the table and just start picking. There are tons to choose from.

Kirk recommends the Stoics. So do I. So does everybody these days, so I’ll just leave the suggestion there.

The trick is to pick philosophers who speak to the conscience. The jumblings of the postmodernists and metaphysics may not help much (though my old spiritual adviser said he prefers Thomas Aquinas to Thomas a ’Kempis for meditation).

Me? I like my philosophy and theology with a spoonful of sugar (it makes the medicine go dooooown). That sugar for me is history, so any history of philosophy is great. Etienne Gilson—both an expert on Descartes and Thomas Aquinas—has a half-dozen great books here, including The Unity of Philosophical Experience and The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.

Also recommended: Basil Willey’s Background books (warning: thick prose) and Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which isn’t remotely a book about conservatism, as that term is used in today’s troubled political times.

[1]Basil Willey explores this phenomenon in The Seventeenth Century Background, in his attempt to understand Thomas Hobbes’ abrasive philosophy and his relentless hatred and contempt for the Scholastics. “The Philosophical Quest—Hobbes,” Chp. VI.

[2]D.H. said of Franklin’s Autobiography: “I am a moral animal. But I am not a moral machine.” Studies in Classic American Literature